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Developing Inquiry Literacy: Exploring Conditions for Students’ Learning about Inquiry in Primary School from a CHAT Perspective
Stockholm University, Faculty of Science, Department of Mathematics and Science Education. (Naturvetenskapsämnenas didaktik)
2012 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Refereed)
Abstract [en]


There is a current debate in science education on what it might mean to educate scientifically literate citizens and the possibilities of actually educating students to become “competent outsiders with respect to science” (Feinstein, 2011). One aspect of scientific literacy, which has been underscored but not sufficiently scrutinized in relation to educating “competent outsiders”, concerns the issue of becoming capable “…to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it”. (National Science Education Standards, 1996, p. 22). The aim of this study is to explore conditions for promoting students' abilities to engage in critical discussion in relation to science inquiry in primary science education.

In science education, on a policy level, inquiry has been attributed great promise as an instructional approach. It has been identified as a ‘key-approach’ to primary science education (Harlen, 2009; Lena, 2009), and recommended as the 'renewed pedagogy for the future of Europe' (European commission, 2007). Today, inquiry is found in curricula world-wide (Beeth et al., 2003). As educational practices, IBSE practices are inherently hybrid: products, ideas and methods of science are transformed into educational content and classroom tasks (Andrée, 2007). The aims of inquiry based science education (IBSE) are, multi-facetted involving IBSE as a method for a) making science more interesting, b) illustrating scientific concepts and c) learning about inquiry as a way of doing science. From previous studies of inquiry and practical work in science education at various levels, we know that students' work in classrooms/school laboratories cannot be equated with the work of scientists even when students follow what appears to be similar procedure (e.g. Wickman & Östman, 2002). Studies specifically focusing on learning about inquiry show that an explicit focus on teaching about the characteristics of scientific inquiry is unusual (Lager-Nyqvist, 2003; Gyllenpalm, 2010). Also, teachers do not regard learning about inquiry as equally important as traditional science subject matter (Lederman, 2007). In addition to this, teachers have rarely experienced authentic inquiry themselves (Windshitl, 2002).

Developing an inquiry literacy involves appropriation of a particular social language for critically analysing, evaluating and judging scientific investigations and conclusions (cf. Lemke, 1993). A challenge in a Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) perspective (cf. Engeström, 2001; Leontiev, 1986; Roth, Lee & Hsu, 2009) becomes to engage students in an activity that allows them to make use of relevant intellectual tools for discussing scientific investigations. This also relates to the issue of authenticity and how to create some resemblance between what students do in school science and what happens in science laboratories (Roth, Eijck, Reis & Hsu, 2008).


The study was conducted as a participant-oriented action research study in collaboration with two teachers teaching science in primary school, grades 1-2 and 3, in one Swedish compulsory school over one school-year. This implies studying educational practice with a view to improving the quality of action within it (cf. Elliot, 1991). Data was collected throughout the school-year by using audio- and video recordings of collaborative teacher-researcher meetings, classroom work and collecting artifacts (e.g. work-plans, lesson plans, and student work). Data also include field-notes from informal meetings. Data is analyzed in terms of how students’ incorporate a language of inquiry in activity. The analytical framework used is Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (cf. Engeström, 2001; Leontiev, 1986; Roth, Lee & Hsu, 2009) in combination with Bakhtin’s (1986) notion of speech genres.

Expected Outcomes

The initial experiences of collaborating researchers and teachers was that it is difficult to design teaching practices that allow students to engage in open-ended inquiry sharing some resemblance to what happens in science laboratories in terms of the levels of control the students have over their conditions of work. For example, when grade 1 students were given a task to collect and investigate mosses in a nearby forest, the teacher by habit assembled the collected mosses from the students without record of whom had collected what mosses, in view that the class would share the mosses equally the following science lesson. As a consequence, the students were deprived of their own unique collection and lost the context for gathering their mosses. In the next step of inquiry students could not relate to the different milieus of the mosses. In order to push toward more authentic inquiry, researchers and teachers have discussed how to further control over inquiry to the students without loosing the objective of developing students abilities to talk about inquiry work. Further detailed analyses will focus on how students in grades 2 and 3 incorporate a language of inquiry when investigating water phase transitions.


Bakhtin, M. (1986). The problem of speech genres. In C. Emerson & M. Holquist (Eds.), Speech genres and other late essays (pp. 60-102). Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

Elliot, J. (1991). Action Research for Educational Change. Open University Press, Bristol.

Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.

European commission (2007). Science Education Now: A Renewed Pedagogy for the Future of Europe. Expert Group Community Research Report. Directorate-General for Research Information and Communication Unit. Brussels.

Feinstein, N. (2011), Salvaging science literacy. Science Education, 95, 168–185.

Gyllenpalm, J., Wickman, P-O. & Holmgren, S-O. (2009). Teachers’ Language on Scientific Inquiry: Methods of teaching or methods of inquiry? International Journal of Science Education, 32, 1151-1172.

Harlen, W. (2009). Evaluation of inquiry-based science education pedagogy and programs. Presentation at European Conference on Primary science education Berlin, May 29 2009.

Lederman, N. (2007). Nature of science: Past, Present and Future. In N. Lederman & S. Abel (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education (pp. 831-879). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lemke, J. (1993). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Norwood: Ablex.

Lena, P. (2009). A long term model for IBSE in primary schools Lessons from La main à la pâte in France. Presentation at European Conference on Primary Science Education Berlin, May 29.

Leontiev, A. (1986). Verksamhet, medvetande personlighet. Moskva/Göteborg: Progress/Fram.

Roth, W-M., Eijck,M. Reis, G. & Hsu, P-L. (2008). Authentic science revisited: In praise of diversity, heterogeneity, hybridity. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Roth, W-M., Lee, Y.J. & Hsu, P-L. (2009). Cultural-historical activity theory and science education. Studies in Science Education, 45, 131-167.

Windschitl, M., Thompson, J. & Braaten, M. (2008). Beyond the scientific method: Model-based inquiry as a new paradigm of preference for school science investigations. Science Education, 92, 941-967.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
National Category
Didactics Learning
Research subject
Science Education
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-82026OAI: diva2:565127
ECER 2012, The Need for Educational Research to Champion Freedom, Education and Development for All
Knut and Alice Wallenberg FoundationSwedish Research CouncilRiksbankens Jubileumsfond
Available from: 2012-11-06 Created: 2012-11-06 Last updated: 2013-08-19Bibliographically approved

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